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One of Sufism's most revered and beloved poet-saints, Rabia was born to poor parents who died of hunger when she was a young child, resulting in homelessness and permanent separation from her three siblings. She was found wandering on the streets of Basra, begging for food, by a criminal who seized her and sold her into slavery. Her master eventually freed her, awed by her holiness and by the light he saw shining from her face when she prayed.
Rabia pursued a life of solitary prayer in the desert, later taking up residence in a tiny house at the edge of Basra. Someone, perhaps a student, wrote that he saw nothing in the entire house but "a pitcher with a chipped spout which she used for bathing, a brick which she used for a pillow, and a reed mat on which she prayed." As her twelfth-century biographer, Attar, wrote, "She was set apart in the seclusion of holiness." She needed nothing because she had everything, and she refused to marry, even when a suitor promised her wealth. She replied that material riches bring only anxiety and sadness, while the life of surrender brings peace.
-- Mary Ford-Grabowsky
I said a few prayers of praise and fell asleep just before dawn. I dreamed of a tree of indescribable beauty and great height. Growing on it were three kinds of fruit unlike any fruit known in this world. The size of a girl's breast, each shone like a moon or a sun against the green surface of the tree.
Awestruck, I looked at the marvelous tree and asked, "Whence comes this tree?"
The answer came, "It grows from your prayers of praise."
As I wondered about this saying, I walked around the tree and noticed that some of its golden fruit was lying on the ground. "Shouldn't this fruit be back on the tree?" I asked.
And the voice replied: "This fruit was growing on the tree, but when you were saying your prayer of praise, you wondered if the dough had risen, and at that moment, it fell."
"O my Lord,
Whatever you have apportioned to me of worldly things
Give it all to my enemies.
And whatever you have apportioned to me
in the world to come,
Give that to my friends.
For you are sufficient for me."
TEACHINGS ON PRAYER
One day Rabia was seen running with fire in one hand and water in the other. They asked her why she was doing this and where she was going. She replied, "I am running to light a fire in Heaven and to pour water on the flames of Hell, so that both veils to the Face disappear forever."
"The source of my suffering and loneliness
is deep in my heart.
This is a disease no doctor can cure.
Only Union with the Friend can cure it."
(translation by Andrew Harvey)
Sacred Voices: Essential Women's Wisdom Through the Ages, edited by Mary Ford-Grabowsky
(San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2002).
See also: Christian and Islamic Spirituality: Sharing a Journey, by
Maria Jaoudi, Ph.D. (Paulist Press, 1993).
Read excerpts from Dr. Jaoudi's chapter on
Reprinted here with the kind permission of Mary Ford-Grabowsky.